I can’t be certain that The Fifth Head of Cerberus was the first story I read by Gene Wolfe, but it is at least the first that I specifically recollect. This was the original novella that won the Nebula Award for best Novella in 1972, originally published in, probably, one of Damon Knight’s invaluable Orbit collections. Afterwards, it was published as the title story in what can be seen as either a collection of three novellas or, as it is more often regarded, a ‘portmanteau’ novel (a term applied to books composed of linked stories).
In that form, I borrowed the book from the library on at least two occasions. I re-read ‘The Fifth Head of Cerberus’ but found it impossible to get into the second section, the vastly different ‘A Story, by John V Marsch’. Not until many years later, when I bought the beautiful Orb Books paperback, was I able to work my way through this second tale, and the final section, ‘V.R.T.’
The contrast between this work and Operation ARES is indescribable. It is hardly credible that they were written by the same writer.
The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a portmanteau novel, meaning a novel created by collecting different stories set against a common background. In this instance, that means the distant colony paired planets, Sainte Croix and Sainte Anne, originally settled by French colonists, whose influence is all over the former planet, which is civilised, but distant from Earth and beyond its practical interference.
Sainte Croix is a civilised planet, Sainte Anne a primitive one. The original inhabitants of the paired planets, known as abos, were shapeshifters: they were entirely wiped out by the human invaders, but there is a school of thought, Veil’s Hypothesis, that instead the abos killed the original colonists and shapeshifted into their form so exactly that they are indistinguishable from human and have forgotten they were ever otherwise.
If you expect, by the end of the book, to be told which of these possibilities is correct, you are thinking of entirely the wrong kind of writer. This is a book about identities, and although this is dealt with most directly only in the title story itself, this opposition is a central part of the theme.
“The Fifth Head of Cerberus” itself was originally written in isolation. It was nominated for the Nebula Award (voted upon by fellow writers) for Best Novella and Wolfe was asked to write two further stories for the purposes of the book.
“Cerberus” is a first person narration by an individual who avoids giving us his name, and who we have to call ‘Number Five’, the name chosen for him by his ‘father’, a distant individual who combines scientific pursuits with running the most successful brothel on Sainte Croix.
“‘A Story’ by John V. Marsch” is a third person fiction set on Sainte Anne, among its primitive races, written by a person who is a minor character in “Cerberus”, prior to Marsch’s participation in the first story.
“V.R.T.” is a collection of random reports, accounts, interviews etc., about Marsch, who has already been held for many years in solitary confinement, for spying. It moves about in time, and creates a mosaic effect that nevertheless can be interpreted to determine that Marsch’s identity has been subsumed, and he is as he is accused by Number Five in the first story.
I’ve said that we only know the narrator of “Cerberus” as Number Five, itself a misleading title, but the clues are there to be read to identify his surname as Wolfe, from which the circumstances enable an easy leap to the first name of Gene. For Number Five, whose story begins when he is little more than five years old, and ends when he returns from imprisonment and hard labour for killing his ‘father’, is a clone, which immediately suggests the appropriateness of ‘Gene’.
But these details are discoveries that we make, slowly, as detail accumulates. Number Five is a fine example of an unreliable narrator. By starting his story at the age of five, and unwinding it slowly, Wolfe keeps the level of understanding at that of a child in an unusual situation, forcing the reader to construct the situation in their own mind.
Number Five’s story unfolds over many years. he and his half-brother David live at the brothel at 666 Saltimbanque Street, though they rarely see any of they girls or the patrons. They are under the care of a robot tutor who they name Mr Million, and their life revolves around daily lessons, and visits to the library, the journey to which always being via the slave market. From such little details, Wolfe provides a picture of Sainte Croix society.
This is how things begin, but before long, Number Five is being summonsed at night, by servants, to his “father”‘s laboratory, where he undergoes questioning that progresses to intense medical experimentation, and massive memory gaps. David is similarly tested, when he reaches the same age, but the brothers never discuss their experiences, and soon it is only Number Five who undergoes this ceaseless testing.
As Number Five grows, so does his resentment, and eventual hatred of his “father”. One day, he meets an anthropologist who has come out from Earth, Dr John V. Marsch. Marsch believes that the abos of Sainte Anne have survived, where scientific consensus is that they have been wiped out completely. He is seeking Dr Veil, of Veil’s Hypothesis, and Number Five is shocked to learn that his crippled Aunt, who occupies a different part of the complex then her brother, who she never sees, is Veil herself.
As Number Five and David grow into their teens, they are joined by Phaedra, a dark-haired girl of their own age, who enters into an adolescent partnership with them, as first players and then thieves. We are given further insight into the society of Sainte Croix when Number Five muses that girls like Phaedra are bred by their families either to marry into rich families like his own, or else to be sold as, effectively, sex slaves.
And so the story moves to its conclusion, as Number Five determines that he is a clone, one in a long line of clones. His “father” is his progenitor only in that he is the elder who has cloned our narrator. He and Number Five are the same, and Number Five intends to kill his father and become him, since he is, effectively, him already.
This is a story about identity but it is only a part of the novel. Five confronts his father, who is closeted with Marsch. He drives Marsch away, by accusing him of being himself an abo, but after killing his “father”, he is arrested, tried and sentenced to hard labour. He is denied inheriting Saltimbanque Street, which goes instead to his “Aunt”, herself another clone, whose genetics have been tampered with. When she dies, he inherits the brothel. By then, he is as good as his “father”, obsessed with the same questions of how and why his genotype cannot be uplifted beyond the point it has already reached, no matter how long it lives and how much it experiences.
It is a dark and disturbing ending, leaving much for the reader to determine for his or herself.
We have been introduced to John V. Marsch in the latter half of ‘The Fifth Head of Cerberus’, when Number Five accuses him of being an abo, and there is a serious case for claiming he makes an earlier appearance, as a guest at Saltimbanque Street who, alone among such guests, draws (Wolfe’s) attention to himself. Always pay attention to characters not identified by Wolfe: you are always meant to link them to other places in the story. Pay no attention either to the fact that this man does not resemble the Marsch we openly meet: we have not yet come to ‘V.R.T.’
But Marsch’s only relevance to ‘“A Story” by John B Marsch’ is as its putative author. The story is a folk-tale, a legend, something deriving from an oral tradition. It is set an indefinable time ago on Sainte Anne, and it is, we will later learn, seemingly a famous legend, about the twin brothers Sandwalker and Eastwind, though it is primarily about the former.
“A Story” takes us from Sandwalker’s rite of passage to the near destruction of his tribe, the threat of which is averted by some unexplained action, which in the story’s context is taken to be quasi-mystical. Sandwalker, whose name derives from his being born breech, his feet appearing first and seeming to walk on the sand of the beach, and who is not yet quite thirteen, is exactly as unreliable a narrator as Number Five, and for the same reason: ignorance. But where Number Five starts as young and must learn, it is rather the constraint of specific cultural perceptions that limit the limits of Sandwalker’s intelligence.
To give one minor example, Sandwalker’s tribe is very few in numbers and, like his own, their names are references to moments surrounding birth. The People have no conception of sexual reproduction: they believe that babies are given by trees, which are sacred and rule their own immediate environment. Sex is unrelated, and male parentage simply doesn’t exist. One of Sandwalker’s People, who is killed in the attack by the Marsh People, aided by Eastwind, is old Bloodyfingers. It is remarked, after Bloodyfingers’ death, how alike physically he and Sandwalker were.
You and I immediately realise, as we are meant to, that Bloodyfingers was father to Sandwalker and Eastwind, who only recognise their mother, Cedar Branches Waving, as a parent: to Sandwalker, old Bloodyfingers’ resemblance to him comes from his mother and Cedar Branches Waving’s mother being sisters.
The episode is full of instances like this, and the reader again has to sort through these primitive perceptions to place what happens in the context of the twin Planets, and what we have already learned about their relationship, their colonisation, and the disappearance of the abos.
And identity is again at the heart of things. As well as the People, and their tribal rivalries, there are also the Shadow People. The Shadow People are a weaker race, yet when the survival of the People requires it, they have the ability to change utterly life on Sainte Anne, by calling down their own from space, not that Sandwalker sees it as such. The Shadow People, we see, are humans, just as the People are the abos of earlier description, settlers whose identities have been assumed, subverted, driven underground.
Put in such clouded terms, the invasion that ends ‘“A Story”’ can’t really be seen in its proper context until we have read the third section, ‘V.R.T.’
Wolfe changes his approach again. ‘V.R.T.’ is an incomplete, achronological account that casts both shadows and perspectives over its two companion stories. It is a compilation of reports, diary accounts, interviews both on paper and on tape, a jumble, encountered in random order because, in the very beginning, it is poured out of a box to be pored over by an unnamed officer who is judging the case of the prisoner, John V. Marsch.
It’s been argued that the unnamed officer is David, Number Five’s brother, and whilst not dismissing this suggestion, as I’ve already said, an unnamed character in Wolfe is someone we know already but have to identify, and there are few other candidates available. Marsch has been imprisoned, without charge, for several years already, taken, we gather, not long after he was dismissed by Number Five. His is a specifically Kafka-esque situation: he has been taken as a political prisoner, believed to be a spy for the Government on Sainte Anne, which is opposed to that of Sainte Croixe. The truth is something else.
Because, as we grow to see during the account, as thread follows thread and each are joined in our imaginations, Marsch is not Marsch. He is Marsch to begin with, the anthropologist who has travelled twenty yeas from Earth to search for the abos of Sainte Anne that everyone else denies exist, and it is Marsch who heads into the Sainte Anne bush with the supposedly half-abo teenage guide, Victor R. Trenchard, but it is not Marsch who has remained prisoner for so long, held by a fascist, military Government whose final decision is to keep him imprisoned.
Along the way, we piece together the conclusion that it is not the boy, V.R.T., who dies during the expedition, in circumstances never satisfactorily explained, but Marsch, and that V.R.T. has shifted into his shape, only to find himself a prisoner.
We learn that though the French settled Sainte Croix, and their influence is everywhere, a war has been fought and they lost and the Government represents these other, unidentified invaders, and we think of the ending of ‘“A Story”’ and ask ourselves just who descended at the call of the Shadow People. A picture forms, in which we see shapes, shapes defined in incompleteness by strands contained in all three stories, a picture that will be different for each reader, as he or she places their own weights on what they see, or do not see.
There isn’t an ending, as such, to ‘V.R.T.’, not to the extent that there is for ‘Cerberus’ or ‘“A Story”’. Wolfe ends his book with the edges frozen, defined so that nothing can go beyond and no further change remains possible, but within those edges, nothing is complete. Everything shifts and changes. Identity is never fixed, but always slipping. Who is who, and what is what, and just what is the vulpine master not telling you?
The answer to that is, inevitably, one hell of a lot. Read The Fifth Head of Cerberus. Attempt the puzzles for yourself. I have forty years head start on you, but I am no wiser.